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Steve Flink: It's Federer's Tournament to Lose

6/3/2009 10:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

PARIS - This has been a dangerous tournament for anyone in the business of making predictions. I was convinced Rafael Nadal was going to wins his fifth French Open in a row. He had worked hard to get himself primed for the biggest clay court occasion of the year, winning his first three events on his favorite surface, losing only one set while sweeping through Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. I did not think that his final round defeat against Roger Federer would be much of a problem since he had played so many matches.

But Nadal, of course, was startled by Robin Soderling and his 31 match Roland Garros winning streak came to an abrupt end in four tumultuous sets. That was a day after Novak Djokovic, the second best clay court performer en route to Paris, was inexplicably ushered out of this event by Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets. Perhaps Djokovic, like Nadal, had played so well over such a long stretch that he left himself surprisingly vulnerable for the one that mattered the most.

Djokovic lost to Kohlschreiber on Saturday. Nadal fell in one of the greatest upsets of modern times on Sunday. And then Federer came precariously close to a fourth round defeat against Tommy Haas on Monday. Federer was not only two sets to love down in that gripping clash, but he trailed 3-4 and was break point down in the third set. Theoretically, Federer was five points away from a bruising defeat.

But he kept his poise and went on to win comfortably in five sets. Order--- at least for the time being--- was restored. But then on Tuesday, out went Andy Murray. The world No. 3 never looked tactically comfortable or technically efficient in a four set loss to Fernando Gonzalez. Murray seemingly had an excellent chance to reach the final, and to perhaps register his first Grand Slam tournament triumph. But it was apparent that he still has some lessons to learn about shot selection and movement on a clay court.

In any event, what a remarkable four day span that was. Nadal bowed out for the first time ever at Roland Garros. Djokovic lost his bearings after an admirably consistent clay court campaign. Federer was on the edge of making a stunning departure before he survived. And then Murray was blasted off the court by the man with the biggest forehand in the game.

But now, I am convinced again that form will hold up over the weekend. I have no hesitation in saying that this is Federer's tournament. There was an outside chance today that if Gael Monfils could have found a way to win the first set and had thus ignited the French audience, Federer might have become unsettled and could have been beaten. But he did not allow that to happen.

The key to that contest was the opening set. Monfils had some serious openings, including two break points in the opening game, and another one at 5-5. Federer was unshakeable at those crucial moments. Monfils did an excellent job on serve himself and did not face a break point. They moved on to a tie-break, and Federer was up 3-1 and then 5-3. He made a surprising unforced error off the forehand to make it 5-4, and then Monfils took two points in a row on serve.

Now Federer was down 5-6, set point, second serve. Monfils needed to be aggressive off the return, but he played it too safe. Federer got just the short ball he wanted, approached confidently off the forehand and took command at the net. He was back. There was no stopping him now. Federer released a service winner to the backhand, and then moved forward again for a crisp forehand volley winner into an open court. Set to Federer.

Monfils was very deflated as a surging and flowing Federer raced to 4-0 in the second set. Federer ran out the match 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-4 with his best performance of the tournament. I can't see how he won't take this win and finish off the tournament in style. He was already relieved to have Nadal taken out of the equation.. He was happy to not meet Djokovic in the semifinals. And surely it was a boost to his morale when Murray lost.

The draw has totally opened up for Federer. He will probably cast aside Del Potro in straight sets when they meet on Friday. Del Potro has been solid for the entire tournament, losing only one set in five victories. But his matchup against Federer is nothing less than a nightmare. he has never come close to beating Federer, who picks him apart easily from the back of the court. Moreover, Del Potro does not have a clue how to read his adversary's serve.

In the worse case scenario, Federer would beat Del Potro in four sets. Gonzalez and Soderling will go at it in their semifinal. That will be an absorbing slugfest between two of the sport's biggest hitters. I would hate to make a call on that one because they can both hurt each other so thoroughly in what will inevitably be brutal rallies.

No matter what happens in that skirmish, Federer will be ready. He handled Gonzalez in the 2007 Australian Open final with relative ease. To be sure, Gonzo blew the first set from 5-4, 40-15, double set point. Had he held there,, he might have made a match of it. But the fact remains that Federer has lost only once in his career against Gonzalez, and he has the strategic acumen and the shot making talent to start picking apart his opponent at will.

At the moment, I believe Soderling might be more dangerous for Federer. He is having the major event of his life, enjoying every moment of it, playing the kind of tennis he always dreamed about. 

He seems oblivious to the pressure of the occasion, and that point was demonstrated emphatically by the fact that he finished off Nadal in a fourth set tie-break. If ever there was a time to crack, that was it. Soderling refused that invitation.

Although I can envision Soderling coming out swinging with abandon and making Federer apprehensive for a while, he is not going to stretch that kind of a shot making assault successfully over a best of five set contest. Federer will get to Soderling's backhand. He will let him know who is the boss. He will not let anything or anyone get in his way now that all of his premier rivals have been taken out of the tournament.

It has been a tournament of astonishing upsets, a fortnight of upheaval, a time of uncertainty. All of that is going to change on Sunday.

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